From Scientist to Organizational Culture Specialist: An Interview with Carolyn Peer

The Scismic Team was fortunate enough to meet Carolyn Peer this month. She is the inspiring founder of Humaxa. Peer has a background in neuroscience. We sat down with Peer to learn more about Humaxa and how her company can help biotechs understand their employees' needs to improve culture, retention, and productivity. Here's her story.

Introduction by Carolyn Peer:

Humaxa provides an AI Assistant - affectionately named “Max” - that chats anonymously with employees, predicts which actions will help them engage and perform their best, and offers to initiate those actions. “Max” is based on my research in cognitive neuroscience but more importantly, “Max” is based on more than 20 years of experience working in Science and Technology. There were so many times when I felt intimidated by being the only woman on a team or I felt I didn’t have the proper training for what I needed to do. Max could have helped me. So my team and I created Max to help others - both employees and employers. It really can be a win-win scenario.

I was very excited to help bring Humaxa to the biotech startup community. With most of us coming from academic lab environments, where employee retention or engagement were certainly not a priority to our post doc/grad supervisors, I thought it would be a great opportunity for us scientists to find out about tools that guide us towards becoming proactive managers ourselves. 


1. Tell me a little about your background.

I actually started off as a physicist believe it or not. I was told that I didn’t have enough calculus-based physics prior to starting off as an undergrad student, but I’m pretty stubborn. I declared Physics as my major anyway. I think there was a part of me that just wanted to prove them wrong when they said I couldn’t do it. :) After a couple of years, I became enthralled with the physical structure of the brain and how it could be simulated in computer code. I ended up changing my major to Cognitive Neuroscience, wrote a thesis,  and designed a program to support my theory of brain evolution and what it would take to simulate true cognitive thought in a machine.

2. What problem was Humaxa created to help solve?

Humaxa helps people and organizations solve issues around low engagement and performance. It also prevents those from becoming issues in the first place.

3. When does it become important for biotech leadership to start prioritizing their organizational culture?

In my opinion, there is no “right time” - the time is always “now.” Because so much of an organization’s success is tied to its people, the employer’s brand is the ultimate force in driving success. A “bad” reputation can affect an organization for years and drive prime candidates away. However, even when an organization's reputation is “good,” just one incident or inflection point can erode that reputation quickly. Having a system in place to automate an inclusive, innovative, high-performing culture is invaluable in the ultimate success of the organization.

4. How can Humaxa help (1) create culture and (2) maintain culture within an organization? 

The first step is establishing a baseline - where is the organization today? We work closely with our clients to listen to their perceived points of pain, craft specific questions to dig deeper, and then gather data on more than 20 different dimensions. This data is gathered through a fun, interactive AI Assistant we’ve named “Max.” Max will strike up anonymous conversations to try to figure out where opportunities lie, and it offers to take the actions it predicts are most likely to improve the situation. For example, if “Max” asks me how I feel about my professional development and I tell Max that I wish I had a mentor who could help me get better at public speaking, Max will offer to connect me with someone who has already offered to help people with giving large group presentations.

5. How can Humaxa be used to report discrimination in the workplace by employees? 

All conversations with “Max” are anonymous by default. If I tell “Max” that I’m unhappy and that I feel marginalized, Max will log that feedback but it’s impossible for the administrator to tell who said it. Max can, however, act as a “courier”; this allows an unhappy employee and an administrator to have an anonymous, live conversation without either party revealing who they are. This is extremely helpful in getting down the root of the issue. Of course, the issue can then be addressed systematically.

6. Are there any concerns about using Humaxa in a very small company? E.g. a company with less than 5 employees 

For group data, there needs to be at least 7 responses for data to show for that group. However, if we’re just talking about general data, all of the data is anonymous - but even just one response will be displayed. I’d be happy to clarify for anyone who’s interested.

7. How often should leadership use Max to check in with their employees? Is there a rough schedule you would recommend for first-time managers? 

The way we handle this at Humaxa is unusual; we put the employee in the driver’s seat. Over time, “Max” is smart enough to figure out how often an employee likes talking with Max and when. Of course, both the leader and the employee can initiate a conversation when they want to. A common frequency is once per week, but we hesitate to use a blanket recommendation - so much depends on the person, the nature of their job, and their current priorities. 

8. What are some questions that you recommend for managers to reach out to their employees with? 

There are many default topics that “Max” is programmed to talk about, and some of them are extremely relevant in today’s world. For example, Max might strike up a conversation about how the organization is doing to help people from diverse backgrounds feel valued and included. If the employee says everything is great, Max might ask the person to take a moment to recognize someone who’s really helped move the needle. Or, if the employee indicates that there’s an opportunity to do better, Max might ask the person to take a moment to thank and recognize someone who’s been overlooked in the past. Of course, a manager can always add their own questions that they’d like Max to ask.

9. From your previous experiences, what would you say are some of the main reasons why employees leave or are unhappy? 

You know, if I’ve learned one thing in this endeavour, it’s that no two people are ever alike! :) For one person, they don’t see a clear path to advance their career. For someone else, they dislike the rigidity in their schedule. For others, they may feel they are simply in the wrong job or they’re not learning enough. I think it’s common to assume the answer is usually salary - and sometimes it is - but what we’re seeing in the data is that salary is the #1 reason about 18% of the time. That means 82% of the time the #1 reason is something else.

10. How would we use Humaxa to address those issues early on so they do not become a reason why employees leave? 

In my experience, most people come to work with good intentions. Managers/Leaders/Supervisors want to help their teams. Employees come to work with the intention of doing great work. But processes break down… people get busy, they’re not able to help as they’d like to… the right resources aren’t available… or no one has time to listen. Of course, in an ideal world, these things would never happen - but life happens. We created “Maxto help with “life happening” - to take some of the burden off of leaders and to simultaneously automate the process of building an inclusive, high-performing culture. That way, everyone can do what they’re best at - even Max! :)

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